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Chapter II -- 3

Now St Macrina proceeds to look at the Aristotelian schema of the virtues, which is that of a mean between two extremes.[1] First, St Macrina asserts that all such pairs of extremes defined in opposition the one to the other (over-boldness – cowardice; pleasure – sorrow; contempt – fear; and so on) have to do with the irascible part of the soul or with the desiring part. Moreover, each member of a pair is either an excess or a deficiency of an impulse of anger or desire. Cowardice is a deficiency of the same impulse of which over-boldness is an excess; similarly for the other pairs. Each pair refers to a specific impulse—defined intrinsically by the pair of terms, which pair reflects the observation of human behaviour—and one member is an excess, the other a deficiency, of that impulse. But in each term of a pair, St Macrina is referring to an operation of the irascible part or of the desiring part of the soul contrary to nature, whether or not the operation described by the term is an excess or deficiency.

Sorrow, however, from both anger and desire has its raw materials: the relaxation of anger in the incapacity to defend oneself against those who have previously sorrowed one becomes sorrow; and the despair of those things which are desired and the deprivation of those things which are dear to one works this dejected disposition in the intellect (dianoia).

It is important to grasp this. St Macrina is beginning a model analysis of human behaviour and introspective experience—we might call it her model psychological analysis. As we have already pointed out, these schemas are fundamental for a comprehension of mental prayer in the heart. We have three parts of the soul, the mind (nous), the irascible part (or, temper) and the desiring part (or, desire). We must account for human behaviour and introspective experience—in prayer, even—using these three concepts. We here have our first examples. Evagrius will deepen the analysis and situate prayer in its context; St Hesychios will introduce mental prayer in the heart, using the Jesus Prayer, but making use of Evagrius’ analysis.[2] We need, in the present example, to account for sorrow, a fundamental concept.

What is sorrow?

According to St Macrina, sorrow has its raw materials—its starting-points—in both the irascible part and the desiring part of the soul. Informally, this means that sorrow has its starting-points either in the passions related to anger or in the passions related to desire. Since the only other part of the soul available is the mind (nous), and St Macrina is not suggesting that sorrow has its starting-points in the operations of the mind (nous), then we have an exhaustive analysis: there is no unconscious; there are no other parts of the soul to provide starting-points for sorrow. This is important: sorrow has to be assigned somewhere, to the mind (nous), to the irascible part or to the desiring part; there is nowhere else it can be pigeon-holed. The mind (nous) is out; it is the image of God. Observing ourselves and others, we see in ourselves and in others that we are sorrowed in three cases: First, when we are unable to defend ourselves against those who have angered us: thwarted anger breeds sorrow. Second, when we cannot attain that which we desire: thwarted desire breeds sorrow. Third, when we are deprived of that which is dear to us: deprivation of what is loved breeds sorrow.

This analysis affords us a means of approaching the therapy of the passion of sorrow, here taken as a condition of being sad in a way contrary to nature. Are you sorrowful? You should not be. Sorrow is not a Christian ascetical virtue. (This is an extremely important matter.) Hence, you must work to free yourself of this sorrow. But the method depends on the cause, and we have isolated the three basic causes: thwarted anger, thwarted desire and deprivation of what is loved. In your case, you must assess which cause is responsible for your sorrow and act accordingly. Thwarted anger has a different therapy from the other two, which are matters of desire.[3]

We here see the basic structure of the psychological analysis. This is the structure of psychological analysis that Evagrius uses. It formed the basis of the Christian asceticism of the Middle Ages. Only in our day, in the West, has it been replaced in the religious orders by modern psychology. We leave the reader to judge whether the change has improved things.

To continue:

And that which is seen in opposition to sorrow, I mean the sickness that is related to pleasure, is similarly distributed to anger and to desire. For pleasure rules each of these two equally.

That is to say: We have taken one passion, sorrow, and we have analysed its causes. Now we look at its polar opposite, pleasure, also a passion, and see that it too is connected to both anger and desire. Since these polar opposites are based on excesses and deficiencies of the same impulse (or, here, impulses), we should expect the same structure for pleasure, although St Macrina does not go into detail, namely: anger achieved (I have revenged myself on him who have sorrowed me; surely we all know the pleasure that comes from revenge); desire achieved (the classic form of pleasure); and retention or reunion with that which is loved. Note that following the form of analysis given for sorrow, we separate the two forms of pleasure based on desire; hence, we still have three forms of pleasure: anger achieved, desire achieved, and retention of or reunion with the beloved. Pleasure is called a sickness by St Macrina. Hence it needs treatment. But its treatment—its therapy—will depend on its cause. The pleasure that the ascetic takes in hatred is different from the pleasure that he takes in the achievement of desire, and the therapies correspondingly different. Again, this is where Evagrius’ analyses will play a definitive role. Now let us continue:

All these things indeed are around the soul and are not the soul,

St Macrina identifies, as she says elsewhere, the soul (psuche) with the mind (nous). In his own ascetical system, Evagrius will discuss passions of the mind (nous).

but of the nature of some warts that sprout from the intellectual (dianoetikon) part of the soul.

This is basic to the concept of affection or passion (pathos), and hence to the whole ascetical endeavour in the way that St Macrina is now formulating it.

Which warts are thought to be parts of the soul since they have clung to it, but they are not that which the soul (psuche) is according to its essence.

St Macrina will modify this concept in a moment, but let us look at it very carefully: it is important in its own right. St Macrina identifies the soul with the mind (nous) as the soul’s essence or substance—what it really is. The other parts of the soul—really, the operations contrary to nature of the other parts of the soul, as her examples have indicated—she is treating as warts, things which have happened to or occurred to the soul seen in its true essence: these are the passions connected with anger and desire. This typology exhausts, as we have pointed out, all psychological phenomena.[4]

This model implies that the ascetic’s goal is to remove completely the affections or passions (pathe)—the warts—from his mind (nous). St Macrina has said that the soul (psuche) or mind (nous) is incomprehensible according to its essence, just as God is incomprehensible according to his essence; and that the mind (nous) has the properties that God has with the exception that the mind (nous) is created and God uncreated. Hence, the ascetic in removing the warts uncovers the true essence of his soul (psuche), his mind (nous), the image of God.

Note that nothing is said here by St Macrina about the role of grace either as assisting the ascetic or as having previously restored in Baptism the image of God that is the soul (psuche) or mind (nous), the essence of the soul that is to be uncovered from the warts of the passions. This should not be construed to be Pelagian, but as an undeveloped matter: St Gregory of Nyssa in other writings addresses such matters. Most likely this whole development of the passions as warts on the true nature of the soul (psuche) or mind (nous) reflects the influence of Plotinus, an influence which either St Macrina or St Gregory has not completely thought through and assimilated into Christianity.[5] Evagrius in his own system will posit that once the irascible part and the desiring part of the soul have been restored to their operation according to nature then the ascetic can begin to restore the mind (nous) to its condition according to nature through contemplation and gnosis; this culminates in mystical union with God.[6] However, he also has an isolated remark that coincides with St Macrina’s model of the passions as warts. In this, it is well to consider that he comes out of the circle of the Cappadocians. The remark is part of Scholia on Ecclesiastes 15:

He says: ‘He gave to them the Age also,’ [cf. Eccl. 3, 2] that is, the reasons (logoi) of the Age. For this is the Kingdom of the Heavens which the Lord said that we have within us [cf. Luke 17, 21], which, being covered by the passions, is not found by men.[7]

In any event, we here have a model wherein the ascetical removal of the warts leads to a recovery of the image of God that Adam retained after the Fall covered with the warts of the passions. The passions are here seen as uniformly negative and undesirable. It is in this context that we should reflect on St Gregory’s next objection:

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[1] Although this schema of the virtues is associated with Aristotle, it in fact first makes its appearance in Plato’s writings.

[2] We will leave Evagrius’ deeper analysis until we comment on his works in Volume II.

[3] These therapies Evagrius discusses in the works we comment on in Volume II.

[4] We will encounter memory and dreams as separate categories; and Evagrius will discuss the significance of the memory, and dreams and dream-like phenomena.

[5] See the Enneads: Plotinus I, 1 [53], 2 and I, 6 [1], 5, ll. 42–57; see also ‘Ethics’ in the article, ‘Plotinus’, by P. Merlan in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Encyclopedia Volume 6, p. 357.

[6] See Volume II.

[7] Ekklesiasten p. 82, ll. 18–21.


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